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UNITED NATIONS, March 28 (Reuters) - Millions of people in Africa's turbulent Sahel region are on the brink of starvation due to drought and conflict, the United Nations said on Wednesday, and aid response plans are less than 40 percent funded ahead of an expected crisis peak.
The Sahel is a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara. John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said 15 million people were affected by the food crisis.
"This is already an appalling crisis in terms of the scale and degree of human suffering and it will get worse unless the response plans are properly funded," he said in a statement released on Wednesday after he visited Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
"It's a matter of life or death for millions who are on the brink," Ging said.
This year millions in the Sahel face not only failed rains but the after-effects of the Libyan war, the shockwaves from Nigeria's battle with Islamist sect Boko Haram and most recently a coup by renegade low-ranking military officers in Mali.
"We are in a race against time and some of the harshest climatic conditions on the planet," Ging said. "More than 200,000 children died of malnutrition last year and over one million are threatened with severe acute malnutrition right now."
Ging said the crisis had been worsened by some 100,000 Mali refugees seeking refuge in neighboring countries and tens of thousands of migrant workers returning from Libya and Ivory Coast, ending remittances that would have helped families cope.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates local cereal output fell 25 percent in 2011, and Mauritania and Chad saw huge 50 percent drops. It says more than 16 million people will be hit by food shortages over this year's lean season, which is due to start in a matter of weeks. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Mohammad Zargham)